Christine Stinson on Her Italian Aristocrat by Louise Reynolds

her-italian-aristocratThe blurb

On a mission to buy a prestigious shoe company, Australian career girl, Gemma Parkinson, arrives in Italy determined to succeed. But when she falls ill, effortlessly handsome local aristocrat, Luca Andretti, is on hand. Suspicious about Gemma’s presence in his town, he offers to let her recuperate in his amazing palazzo. Surrounded by the lavish trappings of the rich—servants, designer clothes, fine food and wine—Gemma is completely out of her depth…

The Review

This moving love story involving two people from very different backgrounds is a delightful, contemporary romance in a gorgeous Italian setting.

If you like shoes, romance and all things Italian, you’ll like Her Italian Aristocrat. In the interest of declaring personal bias up front, the author, Louise Reynolds, is a friend, but this reviewer can still offer an objective opinion.

Her Italian Aristocrat will appeal to anyone who’s looking to spend an enjoyable few hours curled up with a glass of wine and a good read. We meet the heroine, Gemma, in a hospital in Italy. She’s laid up with badly swollen ankles, no Italian speaking skills and a doctor brandishing a needle. Since there’s every chance she might be allergic to whatever’s in it and no way to say so, enter the hero, Luca Andretti, to the rescue.

Readers in the category romance genre will no doubt know how things go from here. But it’s not about the ending—and who doesn’t love a happy ending, anyway?—it’s about the journey, and this one is delightful. A heroine who’s hiding her street kid background behind designer clothes and attitude; a hero with background problems of his own and the expectations of an entire town resting on his shoulders; some gorgeous minor characters (including the venerable Marco, who hasn’t forgotten how to flirt in true, Italian tradition and does it with style) and a fabulous setting. A palazzo in a beautiful hill town of the Marche, characters with heart, good food, even better wine, great sex: Her Italian Aristocrat has them all.

Her Italian Aristocrat is Louise Reynold’s debut novel, for a debut Penguin line, Destiny Romance. Both are well worth a look.

Publisher: Penguin, Destiny Romance
Format: eBook
ISBN: 9781742538747
Published: 14/11/2012

~

Chris photographs 0401A former high school teacher, Christine submitted her first novel to Pan Macmillan in 2009. Getting even with Fran, a humorous story about the power of friendship, was released in April, 2010, re-released in paperback in February, 2011. Her second novel, It takes a Village, was released in May, 2011. She is currently working on her third.

Angela Savage on Nine Days by Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan took as inspiration for her third novel Nine Days a photograph from the archives of The Argus showing, on a crowded platform, a woman held high on a man’s shoulders so she can kiss the soldier leaning towards her from the train window, presumably as he heads off to war. It is a powerful image and Jordan’s book does it justice.

Nine Days does not take place over nine consecutive days as the title might imply. Rather, the narrative traverses nine significant days in the lives of nine different members of the Westaway family, travelling back and forward though time between 1939 and the present.

The first voice is that of fifteen-year-old Kip Westaway, who has dropped out of school to work as a stablehand. His twin brother Francis is a star pupil. Kip’s father has died and his mother Jean has taken in a boarder to help make ends meet, leaving older sister Connie — whom Kip adores — with the laundry and housework. Kip’s effervescence belies the family’s impoverished circumstances, his hopefulness and humour resonating throughout the book.

The narrative ricochets between the time of Kip’s childhood and the present, each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. Because the chapters are not sequential, the story unfolds like a mystery. Certain characters get together before we know how. Others are dead before we know why. It is a measure of Jordan’s talent that this structure is not disorientating, but cleverly propels the narrative and keeps the reader alert for clues to explain the various characters’ fates.

The novel’s success is further derived from the authentic voices of its diverse cast. We hear from Kip’s twin daughters, Stanzi and Charlotte, at different points in their adult lives. We hear the Westaway’s neighbour Jack Husting — young, restless, feeling the pressure to enlist — falling in love with Connie. We hear the voice of Francis as a grief-stricken twelve-year-old, trying to come to terms with his father’s death; and Annabel, briefly Francis’ girlfriend, ultimately Kip’s wife. There is a heartbreaking chapter told in the voice of the widowed Jean Westaway in 1939, followed by the defiant voice of Charlotte’s teenaged son Alec in 2006.

It is Alec who unearths the photo that graces the book’s cover. But only in the final chapter, told in the voice of Kip’s sister Connie, are its secrets revealed. Re-reading the bittersweet ending still makes me tear up.

The other character in this novel is the Melbourne inner city suburb of Richmond, ‘famed for its slums’ in 1939. As the teenage Kip describes it:

You can smell every factory in Richmond from our little backyard when the wind’s right. Between the end of the footy finals and East the hot sweet of the jam hits you first, then the tomato sauce, next burning malt and hops. Now in the middle of winter there’s nothing but the tannery and the Yarra, and it’s like the dunny cart had a permanent spot in the lane…

Jack Hustings bemoans ‘the sad crushed spaces’ of city living. ‘Advertising hoardings on every corner so a man can’t even think his own thoughts without interruption.’

Alec, living in the original Westaway family home sixty years on, laments that ‘the olds…live on the hill in the boring Anglo part’ of a now gentrified Richmond, rather than the ‘way cooler’, Saigon-esque Victoria Street.

Having once lived in the very street where Jordan locates the Westaway home, I can vouch for how accurately she captures the mood of the place.

A family saga that breaks the mould, Nine Days is ultimately a book about love, as poignant and romantic as the photograph that inspired it.

One of my favourite reads of 2012.

Nine Days by Toni Jordan
Publisher: The Text Publishing Company, 2012
ISBN: 9781921922831
Elsewhere reviewed for the challenge by Whispering Gums and Helen.

~

Angela-savage-portrait 2012Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.  She is a winner of the Scarlett Stiletto Award and has twice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards.

Debra Zott on My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

Memory is not democratic. It creates its own hierarchy concerning what will be at the top and what will be at the bottom. Memory decides what it remembers and what it forgets, and what emerges from the daguerreotype. (p.142)

Memory is the device employed by author Susan Johnson to explore the life and loves of Deborah, a woman approaching the age of fifty and coming to terms with her inevitable movement toward death via the body’s decline. Johnson cleverly launches into a hundred or so memory moments – brief snatches of a life lived – from the starting point of Deborah’s ageing body, so that a scar for instance links the present physical being back to an earlier time when she burned herself while ironing naked at the age of twenty-four. Here, it is the skin that remembers the scar and the period of time that she lived ‘inside an erotic swoon’, with an irresponsible and intoxicating lover ‘whose skin felt like home’. So captivated by the erotic was she that she could barely concentrate – hence the burn. ‘The small triangular scar’ on her hip is an emblem of female desire that also reminds of a love triangle fantasy.

This is not, however, an erotic novel and it is too intelligent and mature to be classified as ‘chick lit’. Not to denigrate the entire genre of course! My point is that it is not light and vacuous as some of the fiction labelled ‘chick lit’ is; and its protagonist is a mature woman whereas, unless I am mistaken, the typical chick lit protagonist is twenty or thirty-something. It is ‘an auto-biography of a body’ according to the promotional material from publisher Allen & Unwin, ‘the story of a woman’s life told through her ‘flesh memories’, a mediation on mortality’. This is an accurate description of My Hundred Lovers.

There are of course several erotic memories of fantasy and reality, with both male and female lovers. In one section, Deborah inadvertently sleeps with three men in one day but this is quite accidental. Nevertheless, at this stage in her life she ‘still calculated her worth on how many men wished to sleep with her’ but her sexual encounters are nothing like the emotionless and empty orgies of Catherine Millet in The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Clearly Deborah, at the age of almost fifty, recognises that her younger self calculated her worth this way. The older Deborah celebrates her liberation – ‘My body, mine at last.’

The ‘lovers’ of the title are not purely physical lovers. Deborah celebrates many of life’s simple pleasures, such as sunshine remembered from her newborn days when her mother left her in the garden in her pram. She remembers ‘the feeling of the loving sun on her newborn skin, as warm as a hand’. Also from her time as a baby, she revisits the smell and feel of grass.

Grass smells like the earth, like summer, like joy, and she tries to catch tiny blades of it in her fist, and to stuff it into her mouth. She longs to eat it, to have it inside herself, to be the grass, the blade, the smell of ripeness. (p.13)

Yes, much of the novel is written in the third person, but some of it in first person.

This changing of narrative style creates an effect of the protagonist oscillating between distance from and intimacy with experiences.

Other examples of love memories explored are the pleasures of food, music, cigarettes and flight, and the phenomenon of the object-sexualist – the power of attraction invested in particular objects such as gardens, cars and houses. What is celebrated are the taste-sensations of foods, the mood altering effect of music – ‘a shimmering door to rapture’, the dangerous ‘siren call’ of the cigarette, the way flight suspends and moves a body through time and space, while allowing a view of the ‘passing glories of the world’, and how all of these sensual experiences create a feeling of pleasure of almost spiritual significance. This is the intelligence and cleverness I speak of – to be able to explore the ordinary/extraordinary feelings, perceptions and experiences of a particular person and raise them to the realm of the spiritual, recognising that at one level they are just everyday occurrences, common to many. Rarely do we take the time to zoom in on these experiences, to explore the senses and consider their relationship to body and psyche.

Of course there are some experiences that will resonate with some readers and not with others. I found myself frequently nodding ‘yes’ to the various memories and thinking how well the author had portrayed the female psyche, but then I was forced to pull back and recognise that other female readers may not agree at all that this was an accurate portrayal. We each bring to the reading our own thoughts and experiences. And what of the male reader; the intersex reader? I cannot comment on what another human being might find a connection with in this novel, let alone a reader of another gender / orientation, however I am reporting my honest reaction while immersed in the act of reading.

After reading My Hundred Lovers, I did begin to question some aspects of the text. The main question left hovering in my mind was that Deborah and I share a name and an approximate age, yet it felt to me that I was reading about someone who grew up in an earlier era. This, of course, may be that although the novel was published in 2012 and the protagonist is approaching fifty, the time setting may be much earlier – perhaps a decade or so. Indeed, My Hundred Lovers was probably many years in the writing. Deborah seemed to have a more direct alliance with feminism and politics, which I felt indicated that she was of an age to be able to more fully connect with and participate in the movements and events she refers to, which seem to have been at their height when this reader was still a young child. This isn’t a criticism of the novel, rather an observation of the somewhat unsettling effect of being drawn in to the familiar and resonant, to then be completely thrown by (yet interested in) the unfamiliar, for example the politics of the longed for Justine Gervais who exclaims that it is ‘a political act to sleep with a woman’ – why can’t it just be a sensual one, or an act of love?

The other unfamiliar, for this reader, was Deborah’s experience of living in France. I guess I was hoping for an Australian setting, but again this is not a criticism of the novel, more a personal reflection on the desire to read more Australian novels set in Australia.

The novel is written as a series of short ‘chapters’ so lends itself well to the interrupted reading experience, as well as the long luxurious reading experience. It is written in highly poetic prose and I marked many sections that I intended to refer to in this review, but which I would have been tempted to include as they appear in their entire brief chapter. Let me leave the pleasure of the language to those readers who will appreciate it!

I have also not yet mentioned the complex family relationships touched on in this novel. There is enough written of Deborah’s relationships, with her son, her husband, and her sister, on which to build a larger picture and to contemplate the demise of her marriage and the pain of losing her husband to her more beautiful sister. There is a brilliant emotional contrast provided between two scenes involving the sister – one in which the sisters share a bed and cuddle together for emotional comfort following the death of their mother; the other a confrontation in the aftermath of Deborah learning about her sister’s intimate relationship with her husband.

Readers who prefer a plot and a linear narrative may find themselves frustrated with the non-linear, seemingly plotless, structure of My Hundred Lovers, but those who appreciate the poetic, memories bubbling and rising to the surface, just enough detail on which to build a picture of the complexities of ordinary lives, and the exploration of sensual experience will likely enjoy reading this novel.

Debra Zott

Deb Matthews-Zott (Deb Zott) is a poet with a special interest in audio and video poetry. Her two published collections are Shadow Selves and Slow Notes. Poems from her verse novel in progress, An Adelaide Boy, have been published in Transnational Literature, The Independent Weekly, and Journal of Post-Colonial Cultures and Societies.

~

My Hundred Lovers has also been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Lara Cain Grey, Marg and Jessica White.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781741756357

Jennifer Mills on classics

Used with great caution and suspicion, a literary canon, a list of significance, may have some use in guiding and informing inexperienced readers, but I think probably it’s far more useful as a target of intelligent argument and dissent.” – Ursula le Guin

All canons are lists and all lists restrictive. “Classics” are a product of their time. What a list of important books does is hammer a marker into the landscape, to be walked around, kicked at, tripped over and fought with.

The word canon, with its suggestion of religious worthiness, is a flawed term, and such a list often sees female writers under-represented. Women who write are still faced with a battle for our place in literature. It is not just critics and academics, but also publishers who decide what is a classic. Sometimes these lists are explicit, but often the “canon” referred to is not something a critic would be comfortable articulating, but an ideal, a notion of centrality and longevity. Publishers’ decisions are more concrete, but made in the context of sales and available rights.

What does it mean to be marginal? Isn’t history a constant process of reclamation of story? Given the already peripheral status of Australian fiction in a global context, this implied centre can seem absurd. I think of all the Indigenous writers now who are working to reposition literature in a post-colonial context, and the voices of migrants and the children of migrants who are claiming their place among Australian stories. If there is a centre in Australian writing it is constantly shifting. I think that’s a sign of a healthy literature.

For the AWW challenge, I decided to read five works by Australian women that I would consider classics. Not all of them would figure in every Australian canon, but each book has stood the test of time in some way. The AWW challenge therefore gave me the opportunity to reposition some women writers in my own literary list of significance, and rethink what makes a classic work.

The first was Eve Langley’s delightful book The Pea Pickers. Like Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers, The Pea Pickers is set among itinerant workers in the early 20th century. Her pickers are two young women traveling Australia dressed as men for kicks and money. They are poor and brave, fierce and vulnerable and funny. This is Australia’s Cannery Row, a collection of slapstick yarns infused with nostalgia and sorrow. As well as being hilarious, The Pea Pickers has a wonderful soul to it, capturing the drama of youth, the languid heat of the bush and the marvellous characters, some of whom will stay with me for a long time. I’m grateful to my wonderful reading community on Twitter for this recommendation.

Barbara Baynton is a writer I am ashamed to say I only heard of when someone compared my own work to hers in a review of The Rest is Weight. After looking her up I realised I had read some of her stories before in anthologies. Baynton’s name crops up now and again in lists of great Australian short story writers, but not often enough. Reading Bush Studies was an absolute pleasure. Her work is distinguished by her rural character studies and a poignancy which verges on despair, and her stories are prototypes for the proliferation of outback gothic in our literature now. Baynton is part Henry Lawson, part Eudora Welty, and a master of the tension and texture of the short story form.

Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahony has been called the Great Australian Novel. Its classic status is least disputed among these five, and with good reason. This book was a revelation. Richardson’s insight into the minds and lives of people buffeted by changing social fortunes is both historically fascinating and intensely contemporary.

The interplay between Polly/Mary’s loyalty and Richard’s mercurial decay is ripe dramatic material, and the expatriate wanderings and constant uprooting of home lend this story an epic quality which its 900 pages only reinforce. I read it quickly, thrilled by Richardson’s capacity for tension and her ability to embed an analysis of class and colonial anxieties into the lives of her characters. Reading Ultima Thule, the last book of the three and the most modern in its intimate portrayal of the inner life, I had to bite down on a finger; the last book that did this to me was Stead’s Man Who Loved Children, and the similarities do not end there.

When I talked about this book with my mother, who is one of my great reading accomplices, she mentioned that she studied it for her Leaving Certificate in the 1960s. I can’t imagine anyone putting this on a high school syllabus now, and yet I would have loved to have had the opportunity to argue over it at that age (my 1939 edition is inscribed by a woman at teacher’s college). I’m glad I read it in my mid-thirties, with a bit of life behind me, for Mary’s battles are the battles of a mature woman. Although Fortunes was written almost a hundred years ago, it feels radical now, in a culture that tends to infantilise women.

The next book on my list is meant for the young: Miles Franklin’s coming of age classic, My Brilliant Career, a proto-feminist romance novel. I got the least out of this book among the five, perhaps because it was a re-read, and perhaps because it’s already so iconic. I found that the emotional weight of the book is very light compared to its status in our culture. But it was worth re-reading Stella Miles Franklin’s story to rediscover the sharp wit and fresh-voiced cleverness in her language – particularly impressive given that she was barely an adult herself when she wrote it. I feel an affection for Sybilla and her brave choices which I am sure many readers share.

Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower is another book to read with your thumb between your teeth. An intense study of domestic tyranny, this short novel depicts suburban Sydney with a simmering menace equal to anything in Patrick White. A bloody bluebeard tale so poisonously real I find I am still worrying about the women in it now, Harrower’s work is regaining prominence (this has been “rescued” as a Text Classic). I had not heard of her until this year, though the edition I picked up was a second-hand copy, and the impetus to read it came from Twitter (again!). I have found Harrower’s short stories amazing too and I wish that she had not stopped writing, though given the emotional intensity of her work I can hardly blame her.

These five books each have a distinct Australian flavour – the pioneering spirit we see in Richardson, Baynton and Franklin are balanced by the comedy of Langley and the tragedy of Harrower. But then, my idea of what is Australian is coloured by the whiteness of our canon and the bush narratives to which I am geographically and sentimentally attached.

These books aren’t valuable to me because they insert women into our stories. The women were always there, in Tree of Man and The Drover’s Wife and every other story worth its salt, and I can’t say the women in these books are very different from the colonial wives and good-time bush girls you will find in stories by men. We get more of a sense of the inner lives of women from women, perhaps. Or perhaps there is something that women see of life, something they witness in the Australian narrative, that a male writer would be less likely to notice.

In these books by women, the stoicism and infinite patience of colonial wives is heroic, but it is also shown to be ultimately self-destructive; the pioneer story is a story of error as much as of sacrifice; the bush girls are landscape romantics, with a humour so bleak it borders on nihilism. If, as I have long suspected, Australia’s national stories are narratives of failure and trauma, then these books by women are strong representations of our literary culture.

Reading them, I thought often of the women who had read and discussed these books before me. Knowing these readers and writers have gone before makes me feel that I am part of an active culture, a living thing. And perhaps the revisionist urge to ‘rediscover’ these women is not so much about representation, or women writing differently to men, but about belonging. Finding our place as readers and writers, tending and extending the paths that others have trodden for us, as we learn to care for a changing landscape.

Each of these books is a product of its time, but each writer also brings a universal quality to her fiction, and each has power and immediacy. That ability to speak from a certain time and place and yet speak directly to the heart of life is what makes a classic. It is something that we discover about a work over time, and only if that time is filled with reading, writing, and most importantly, robust argument.

~

Jennifer Mills is the author of two novels, Gone and The Diamond Anchor, and a collection of short stories, The Rest is Weight. She is the fiction editor at Overland and has read 24 books this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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